From the 1970s through 2012, it was common for U.S. dairy farmers to raise all their heifer calves. Many would keep 25% to 35% of those calves for replacements in their own herds and would sell the rest as springing or fresh heifers to other dairy farmers who were expanding their herds or needed replacements. The heifers created a nice cash crop for producers looking for an additional revenue stream.
Some dairy farmers kept their bull calves and raised dairy steers, and some raised both dairy steers and dairy heifers. But as more dairy producers began using sexed semen to increase their number of heifer calves, about a decade ago, there became a glut of dairy heifers; the market for dairy replacement heifers all but dried up, and so did the additional revenue stream.
Some turned to raising dairy steers, usually Holsteins and some Jerseys. But some dairy farmers began breeding the bottom 20% to 50% of their cows to AI beef bulls, often using Angus, Limousin or Angus-Limousin crossbred semen. The resulting calves are black, look more like beef cattle than dairy cattle, and bring about $100 more per calf than a newborn Holstein bull calf. They also bring more as finished cattle than Holstein or Jersey steers.
A half-million dairy-beef
Fast-forward 10 years, and USDA estimates the number of dairy-beef cattle in the national beef herd will reach 500,000 head this year. While that number is nothing to sneeze at, Kelli Retallick-Riley, a Wisconsin native who is president of Angus Genetics Inc. in St. Joseph, Mo., notes there are about 30 million beef cows in the U.S.
“We’re not adding more animals to the beef supply chain, we are just now replacing a source of animals with higher-quality beef animals,” Retallick-Riley explains. “These beef-dairy crosses aren’t new cattle; historically, 35% of prime cattle were coming from Holsteins. Are they going to replace your cow-calf producers? No, but now dairy producers are putting a more consistent product on the plate of consumers compared to the straight-bred dairy steer.”
Another issue dairy farmers faced 10 years ago was one of the big four national packers said it was not going to kill Holstein steers anymore.
“That’s not what all of the processors did, but it diminished the value of a dairy steer because that buyer was taken away,” she says. “Dairy farmers are in a lot better spot today.”
How have dairy-beef impacted what AGI does?
“At Angus Genetics Inc., we focus on helping producers identify the right bulls to use on those dairy animals and help Angus producers create those solutions,” Retallick-Riley says. “It used to be ‘let’s get a black calf.’ So, this idea of cleaning out the semen tank has been replaced with using the right Angus bull on a dairy cow to get the right genetics.”
AGI, which is owned by the American Angus Association, has created two selection indexes to help dairy producers breed Holstein or Jersey cows to Angus bulls.
Tools to help select bulls
“For the Holsteins, there is an Angus-on-Holstein ($AxH) index, and for the Jerseys, there is an Angus-on-Jersey ($AxJ) index,” Retallick-Riley says. “This helps dairy producers select the right Angus bulls for their dairy cattle. This provides dairy farmers some good tools to select the right bulls for their females.”
Within those indexes, AGI focuses on end-product merit traits like dressing percentage, how many pounds of valued meat can be harvested from a carcass, calving ease and marbling of meat.
“We have also added a height requirement,” Retallick-Riley notes. “We surveyed the packers, who said some Holstein dairy-beef are too tall to manage effectively in the plants. They don’t want carcasses to touch the floor — that’s a food safety issue. The Jersey crossbreds don’t have that issue.”
There is also a muscling component included in the index for each bull.
“Basically, we’re trying to put the beefiness character into these dairy-beef crosses,” she says. “Anytime you create those crossbred matings, you can’t control variation. Most dairy producers are using beef semen rather than dairy semen for dairy beef.”
Retallick-Riley believes dairy-beef cattle are a cut above dairy steers.
“I think these dairy-beef animals are going to get better,” she says. “The cross with beef creates a more efficient animal in the feedlot and higher-yielding carcasses.”